$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016)

by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

Topics: Hunger, poverty, welfare.
Citation: Edin, K. & Shaefer, H.L. (2016). $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Mariner Books.

Goodreads description:

A revelatory account of poverty in America so deep that we, as a country, don’t think it exists

Jessica Compton’s family of four would have no cash income unless she donated plasma twice a week at her local donation center in Tennessee. Modonna Harris and her teenage daughter Brianna in Chicago often have no food but spoiled milk on weekends.

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

The authors illuminate a troubling trend: a low-wage labor market that increasingly fails to deliver a living wage, and a growing but hidden landscape of survival strategies among America’s extreme poor. More than a powerful exposé, $2.00 a Day delivers new evidence and new ideas to our national debate on income inequality.

Check out the full website for $2.00 a Day!

About the authors:

After decades of research on poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen before—namely, that many of the people she was talking with had virtually no cash coming in. She then teamed up with H. Luke Shaefer, who confirmed a spike in the number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day in the wake of the 1996 reform that abolished a federal guarantee of support to the poor and thereby ended “welfare as we knew it.” Edin and Shaefer then traveled from Cleveland, to Chicago, to the Mississippi Delta to spend time with 18 families, trying to better understand how the 1.5 million households living in this extreme poverty, including 3 million children, are able to get by at all.

Photo by the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

Kathryn J. Edin, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, is recognized as one of the leading poverty researchers in the U.S. Noted for her “home economics of welfare” (Mother Jones), Edin uses both quantitative research and in-depth observation to try to better understand the lives of people living in poverty in the U.S. Her other books include Promises I Can’t Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage and Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.

Photo by the University of Michigan School of Social Work

H. Luke Shaefer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Ford School of Public Policy as well as a research affiliate at the National Poverty Center, is an expert on Census surveys that track the incomes of the poor. His recent work explores rising levels of extreme poverty in the U.S., the impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on material hardship, barriers to unemployment insurance, and strategies for increasing access to oral health care in the United States.

New Paltz communally reads $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Written by Frances Marion Platt
Published in the New Paltz Times

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)
Photo by Lauren Thomas. Committee members from left to right: Darlene Davis, Sue Books, Charlene V. Martoni, Myra Sorin, Shelly Sherman, and Linda Welles.

One Book/One New Paltz, the annual joint community reading and discussion experience, returns to town with a week’s worth of activities from November 13 to 20. But this year it’s going to be a little different: Instead of the usual novel, the book selected by the One Book/One New Paltz Committee is a sobering non-fictional account of the lives of people living in extreme poverty. The 2016 Community Read is titled $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

“It’s such an important, compelling topic,” says Shelley Sherman, a longtime member of the Committee. “And as for programming, it presents so many possibilities.” That a book will “lend itself to programming” is one of the criteria by which a One Book/One New Paltz selection is chosen, Sherman explains, along with being well-written, accessible and not more than about 350 pages in length. The Committee has also looked for a representation of diversity in both topics covered and authors as well.

But it wasn’t simply a matter of One Book being “due” for a nonfiction title this year, says Sherman. The multi-tiered selection process starts each year around February, with a list of 50 or 60 titles suggested by Committee members, derived from surveys of attendees at the previous year’s events or added to suggestion boxes placed at the Elting Memorial Library, the Sojourner Truth Library at SUNY-New Paltz and local bookstores. The initial list is weeded down to about 20 semifinalists, then to five or six titles thought to be especially strong. Committee members will then make sure to read the finalists and prepare to “come in with arguments pro or con” at the meeting where the final selection is made.

Certainly the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession and many of the topics in the air during a presidential election year make a book about the poorest of the poor in America a good fit with the current zeitgeist. “You know that saying about how we’re all one paycheck away from poverty? Well, most people are, to some extent,” Sherman notes. She says that the families profiled in the book often start out middle-class, but are struck by one or more turns of ill fortune, such as the catastrophic illness of a breadwinner or the need to take in other relatives who have a disability or an unplanned baby on the way. When the family’s income is nearly nonexistent, efforts to improve their circumstances are often severely limited by such factors as the cost of child care, transportation and other logistical difficulties or simply the inability to afford to buy appropriate clothing for work.

Edin and Shaefer are sociologists who traveled around the country to spend time with 18 families, both urban and rural, to gain a better understanding of how the 1.5 million households living “under the radar” in such extreme poverty, including 3 million children, are able to get by at all. Some manage to get sporadic seasonal work; some collect cans and bottles for deposits; one woman they interviewed periodically sells her blood plasma. They are the legacy of the “welfare-to-work” social services reforms of the 1990s, and America provides no safety net for them beyond food stamps. “The book is not like a college sociology text,” says Sherman. “These are interesting tales of real people.”

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America can be found at local bookstores (Inquiring Minds and Barner Books, both on Church Street in New Paltz) and at the Elting Library and Sojourner Truth Library, as well as on Kindle. The week of One Book/One New Paltz programming scheduled from November 13 to 20 will include more than a dozen events: presentations on poverty as seen through the lenses of various academic disciplines; book discussions; an open mic night for creative expression; discussions and perspectives on poverty by those experiencing it directly; and a workshop on résumé building and job search. Full program details are available at the One Book/One New Paltz website,www.onebookonenewpaltz.com.